Thursday, February 6, 2014
Years ago, I was listening to a folksinger play in Washington Square Park and noticed a sign on his guitar, "This Machine Kills Fascists." An adolescent, I wondered what that meant. In "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," the late folk and blues artist Dave Van Ronk wrote that this sign was famously placed on the guitar of Woody Guthrie. While I highly doubt that I actually saw Guthrie, the anecdote reflects the fact that anyone who had the slightest connection to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the late 1950s to the mid 1960s will find something to spark a memory in this finely detailed book.
The book sat on my shelves for too many years until I was inspired to read it after seeing the film "Inside Llewyn Davis" (reviewed here). The Coen brothers, who directed the film, adapted a number of scenes from this account of the life of Van Ronk, who remained a prominent member of the Village folk scene for decades. He earned his moniker, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," and there is now a Dave Van Ronk Street, dedicated in 2004, in Greenwich Village. His autobiography, written with Elijah Wald, reflects the fact that, as Bob Dylan put it, "In Greenwich Village, Van Ronk was king of the street, he reigned supreme." Van Ronk's deep involvement in the folk scene is reflected in the fact that he knew everyone: Dylan; the recently departed Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; Tom Paxton; Joni Mitchell; Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Peter, Paul and Mary; Phil Ochs, and more. Concomitant with the folk scene was an acoustic blues revival, and Van Ronk formed friendships with its prominent African-American artists: the Reverend Gary Davis, Sonnie Terry and Brownie McGhee, Josh White and Mississippi John Hurt. And, of course, Van Ronk performed and attended concerts at all of the legendary Village folk clubs and coffee houses: the Kettle of Fish, Gerde's Folk City, the Cafe Bizarre, the Cafe Wha? and the Bitter End.
Van Ronk was both an entertaining raconteur and a contrarian. A lifelong leftist, he viewed the New Left of the 1960s as "a petty bourgeois movement that had no connection with what was really going on." He disparaged Dylan's lyrics when the latter went electric for their "unintelligibility." Van Ronk's assessment of the music of the 1960s, however, was too dismissive. He allowed that the Beatles were "sweet and amusing and had some very interesting ideas." Regarding the folk period itself, he wrote, "...very little of what got put down had much permanent value." If that is the case, why write this book? He also wrote, "...we produced a Bob Dylan, a Tom Paxton, a Phil Ochs, a bit later a Joni Mitchell–but we did not produce a Johann Sebastian Bach or a Duke Ellington." In the folk genre, such artists are indeed comparable to the classical and jazz greats. Regardless, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street is incomparable as a portrait of a folk music era and scene that, despite Van Ronk's dissension, produced artists and music of lasting influence.